How To Ask An Expert For Help

Entrepreneurs often have to ask an expert for help. Here is some great advice by Andrea R. Nierenberg in the “Ask the Expert” column of this month’s New York Enterprise report.

Q: Like most small business owners, I find there aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish all I want to do. Plus there is another, growing demand on my time — people who call me and e-mail me asking for my advice, help, etc. I feel that as a growing business, I need to get back to anyone who communicates with me, and I am aware that these contacts may provide some opportunities for my company. But the sheer volume is beginning to bog me down. Do I owe a response to everyone who contacts me? If so, how do I handle it all?

A: I have been a business owner for over 13 years, and a week does not go by without someone calling or e-mailing me to “pick my brain” (a phrase that, by the way, I detest). While I always believe in the courtesy of responding to everyone, I am also a stickler for time management. Here is how I handle my inquiries:

When someone calls, I immediately say, “I have five minutes: how can I help you?” As the caller starts to tell his story, I stop him or her and say, “Would you mind writing down your specific questions and let me know what you have done so far to seek a solution? Then, please e-mail them to me, in bulleted form, so that we can arrange a follow-up meeting or phone call. This way, I’ll be prepared and we can get right to the matter.” Here is the funny thing: About 5% of the people actually follow up. I have found that while many people say they want your advice, time and suggestions, they will never act on what you say — so I find out in advance by asking them to meet me halfway. The ones that are serious about soliciting my advice or opinion will follow through.

With an E-mail inquiry, I will basically give the same sort of reply. Like many people, I carry a BlackBerry and I will glance at my e-mails all day long. But for the sake of time management, I often wait to answer them all at once, when I have a mini-block of time.

To keep things under control, it’s also crucial to batch these kinds of calls by category and importance. Don’t stop and start on each inquiry that comes in without finishing your prior work. You will only get more bogged down.

A caveat here: If during the first few minutes of the phone call, or if in reading the initial e-mail, I know I cannot help this individual or provide useful advice, I immediately say so; if possible, I may refer him or her to someone else. The last thing I want to do is waste time figuring out “some way” to help someone when I know that ultimately I won’t be able to.

Regardless of who calls, always take those few minutes to listen carefully and be courteous. Be firm, stick to your time limit, and remind them that you can talk to them at a later date, when you have blocked out the time. Let people know that your time is valuable and help them get to the point. I’ve made some great connections and contacts through lending a helping hand, and I firmly believe that what goes around does come around. You just have to set up your rules so that your helping hand remains just that and you can get on with the business of running your business.

I don’t know that you should be quite so brusque with prospects, but let’s turn this around for a minute and assume you were going to ask an expert for help. I think there is some good advice here if you are planning to ask someone with expertise for help.

  • If it’s in writing (for example in a forum):
    • Outline very briefly who you are
    • your situation or problem
    • what you have done to investigate and/or solve the problem
    • what specific alternatives you are trying to choose from or have ruled out
    • Any other directly relevant information
  • On the phone: E-mail ahead the information above adding
    • who suggested that you contact the person
    • how helping you might also help the other person
    • end your call in five minutes or less unless the other person is clearly interested in talking
  • Approaching a speaker after a talk
    • Introduce yourself, exchange business cards, and ask if they mind you e-mailing a question about “X” in less than thirty seconds. Especially if there are folks behind you the speaker may be anxious to chat with them briefly as well.
    • When you follow up mention where you met them and that they said is was OK to follow up (unless they didn’t say it was OK, in which case don’t).

I am amazed at the number of folks who ask questions on forums without doing any basic homework. It’s much more motivating to read they have tried six things and are now asking for help because none of them gave a satisfactory answer. I am disappointed at events by the number of folks who strike up long conversation with the speaker and there are half a dozen or a dozen people in line. You can always get back in line or wait until the line clears to see if the presenter wants to have a longer conversation.

Chapter 6 “Knowing Who Knows, Plugging Into the Knowledge Network” in How to be a Star at Work by Robert Kelley also details an excellent model for connecting with experts stressing the need to

  • Build your network before you need it, if possible.
  • Be very mindful of people’s time and don’t waste it.
  • Give careful thought to how you phrase your request or question.
  • Summarize your attempts to solve the problem or find the information you as asking for help with.
  • Verbally thank and follow up in writing, publicly credit.

Update Jan-21-2011: William Pietri suggested Eric Raymond’s “How To Ask Questions The Smart Way” that has a lot of good advice for how to ask an expert a question in forums and e-mail groups.

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